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As a Mac user you’ve probably become accustomed to the speed and comfort of iTunes which comes pre-installed with your machine. It offers amenities such as synchronization with your iPhone and features the ingeniously simple management of extensive music collections.
Apple has invested heavily in a fantastic eco-system around iTunes. Want to remote control your music library from an iOS device? You got it. And it doesn’t cost a penny, too.
Thanks to its built-in support for lossless audio formats (Apple Lossless) and clean CD Ripping, iTunes can double as a decent audiophile music player – that is if the music data is sent to a good external digital to analog converter of course. In this case, iTunes can potentially rival other high-end digital playback systems according to my experience.
Despite being a great music library manager, iTunes lacks flexibility when it comes to supporting a wider range of audio formats. For example, there’s no built-in support for Flac which is the most popular format among audiophiles. Sure, you can install the “Fluke” plugin which will play back your non-high resolution tracks at 16 bits / 44.1 kHz but be prepared for a bumpy ride.
At this time, iTunes will only natively play MP3, AAC, AIFF and WAV in addition to ALAC. Not exactly perfect for everyone.
Luckily, you can put iTunes on steroids with a couple of cool third-party applications. What most of them do is basically “replace” the underlying QuickTime engine of iTunes with their own “audiophile approved” playback engines. So you can either continue using iTunes for library management only but not for the actual playback or skip iTunes altogether and use that particular third-party program for everything you do with your music collection.
Most of these iTunes alternatives (or replacements) which are not only the best alternatices to itunes for mac also offer extra goodies such as DSP plugins, sample rate conversions and memory playback so your playback quality does no longer rely on the internal processes of your computer. After all, you want perfect sound quality, right?
Let’s look at some of the best audiophile music players on the Mac.
An excellent software player for Mac OS X, which ticks all the boxes is Audirvana. This is the program I personally use for my day to day listening.
Audirvana can work both as a standalone player or in iTunes integrated mode if you wish. That is Audirvana running in the background taking care of audio processing while iTunes manages your tracks.
Figure 1: Audirvana main window playing in iTunes integrated mode
Unlike iTunes it provides an excellent digital volume control, which can even be controlled remotely. I found the digital remote control feature so good that it might possibly even save you a complete preamplifier. This is great news if you plan to connect your DAC directly to power amplifiers or active speakers. For ambitious perfectionist, Audirvana features “integer mode” support allowing it to communicate at the lowest level with the operating system and communicate directly with your audio hardware. In my opinion, Audirvana is the best flac player for mac computers, too.
One pleasant side effect is the chic surface of Audirvana, which resembles a classic hi-fi equipment. If you want to buy the full version which I highly recommend, it is going to cost you $74 (U.S. customers). For this price you are also going to get future updates.
Decibel has a similar approach. With its minimalist layout , the manufacturer leans on the philosophy of iTunes. The basic idea here was also to minimize any interactions with your computer. However, it’s a standalone player offering everything from music library management to playback. Not a big deal for some audiophiles though if you dislike iTunes anyway.
Decibel also does play back virtually anything you throw at it. It specifically supports AIFF, WAV, FLAC, OGG and of course ALAC (Apple Lossless). It does not offer some of the advanced features of Audirvana though. Decibel is also quite affordable at the current price of $33.
If you want to continue using iTunes and are only interested in enjoying perfect audio playback, Pure Music may be also be worth considering for you.
Pure Music shares most of the features of Audirvana such as up- or downsampling, digital volume control. In addition, you also get a powerful parametric equalizer for sonic fine-tuning. Another special highlight is the ability to convert DSD file formats (SACD) on the fly into PCM which is digestible by all digital-to-analog converters. Not really an essential feature but certainly nice to have for some audiophiles. At about $150 it is one of the more expensive choices in this review.
Another top choice for professional users is Amarra which comes in three different flavors. The cheapest one (Amarra Hifi) will set you back $50 while the higer end editions cost a couple of hundreds. But if you just want a minimalistic solution for better playback quality, you should be fine with the basic version.
Finally, Fidelia or BitPerfect are often mentioned by audiophile listeners.
Fortunately, there are free trial versions for all of the programs I’ve mentioned, so you can check them out on your Mac before making a decision to purchase any of them.